Shakespeare Chronology vs. North Chronology
If we forget for a moment that Shakespeare was a theatrical entrepreneur feverishly adapting plays to keep up with public demand and imagine him instead as a lonely artist originating plays by candlelight, then the conventional Shakespeare chronology would seem unrealistic for many reasons—but especially in terms of its literary evolution. The disconnect is that when Shakespeare adapted old plays, he did so haphazardly, often switching genres and themes from one play to the next. This would not be surprising for an overworked adaptor who would have little concern for thematic consistency. But if we revert to thinking of Shakespeare as originating these plays, the conventional timeline is an incoherent mess of an author chronology. For example, within the course of a few years between 1591–3, Shakespeare worked on an early Italian comedy, then an English history, then an old-fashioned, gruesome Senecan tragedy—with no rhyme or reason for the type of play he chose.
Indeed, in the early 1590s, Shakespeare staged everything from every era of North’s life—from North’s latest tragedies (e.g., Hamlet, King Lear) to his earlier works (e.g., Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew) and much of what fell in between (e.g., 1, 2,and 3 Henry VI). As scholars realize that it was impossible for any writer to start with Hamlet or King Lear as two of his earliest plays, they ignore the specific allusions in the late 1580s and early 1590s to these mature tragedies and their performances. Instead, they give these plays a much later date anyway. But even with these contrived efforts, Shakespeare’s chronology still seems bizarre and jumbled:
Unlike the oeuvres of many other authors, the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays clearly lacks any sort of discernible or comprehensible literary pattern. Shakespeare is also unrealistically young to have originated all these plays, and the timeline is far too cramped, shoved all together into a mere 23 years. The first time we even hear of Shakespeare in London is in Groatsworth of Wit, published in 1592, the year he turned 28.
A mere eight years later, by the time he turned 36, he has written all the greatest English histories, including Richard III, Henry V, and King John; all the best comedies, including As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Twelfth Night; as well as Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. He has even written Hamlet! By the time he is 40 or 41, we can add the rest of the tragedies: Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear. Then, in his late 40s, he inexplicably becomes much worse, coauthoring forgettable plays like Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, neither of which has a single memorable soliloquy. Then he quits entirely before he is 50.
In contrast, the actual chronology of North’s source plays progresses organically and fits the mold of identifiable authorial periods, all influenced by the events of his life and the works he translated. We see this with other authors. Hemingway’s writings can be grouped into a French Ex-Pat phase, followed by a Spanish Civil War phase, and culminating with an elderly Cuban period—all of it linked to the dramatic changes in Hemingway’s circumstances. The same is true for North, whose literary periods changed with the varying epochs of his life and reflected the works he most recently translated. As Doni fits in with his early Italian phase, so Plutarch’s Lives clearly brought about his Plutarchan phase, etc. What is more, this chronology is independently verified by external allusions to the source plays, dating of source material, topical commentary in the plays, etc. Each play also includes many smaller elements that also derive from North’s life from that particular time.
Two of Shakespeare’s plays—The Merry Wives of Windsor and The Two Noble Kinsmen—do not appear in North’s chronology as I believe he did not write the source play for either. These plays also do not really fit into the Shakespeare canon as we know it. Merry Wives is Shakespeare’s only comedy set in England, the only play that focuses on domestic issues, the only play with nothing serious in it, one of only a few plays in which no lives are at stake, one of only a few plays with no nobility. The comedy stands out to such a degree because it was not a North-originated project. Shakespeare is no doubt the one who mostly crafted it, trying to cash in on the popularity of Falstaff. The same is true with The Two Noble Kinsmen, which many editors have doubted is an authentic Shakespeare play. Shakespeare likely wrote it with Fletcher in 1614 or so—and perhaps even adapted it from Palamon and Arcite (1566), an old Lincoln’s Inn play by Richard Edwardes.
All the other plays do derive from works of North—and the labels for their thematic categories also effectively describe the different stages of North’s life: Early Catholic, Senecan/Inns of Court, Early Italian, Plutarchan, Anti-French, Irish War, Tragic, Pro-Essex, War of the Theaters, End-of-Life Swan Songs.
The thematic arc of the canon is long, and it changes and bends with the life of Thomas North.